Get all of Rob Mahoney's columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
Matchup: (1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (2) Toronto Raptors
Season Series: 2-1 Toronto
Cleveland’s Efficiency Rankings: Off: 1, Def: 11, Net: 2
Toronto’s Efficiency Rankings: Off: 5, Def:, Net: 6
Cleveland’s Playoff Efficiency Rankings: Off: 1, Def: 11, Net: 2
Toronto’s Playoff Efficiency Rankings: Off: 11, Def: 6, Net: 9
Paths: CLE beat DET (8) and ATL (4); TOR beat IND (7) and MIA (3)
The Eastern Conference on the whole was much improved this season, if not so improved as to offer the front-running Cavaliers any realistic challenge. The greatest tests Cleveland faced—and largely aced—were self-imposed. Otherwise, the No. 1 seed and defending conference champions dispatched both Detroit and Atlanta in four-game sweeps. Toronto could be next. The result of the impending Eastern Conference finals appears sealed in the imbalance of the matchup; one of these teams is a contender, the other a striver that has lasted so long in these playoffs as to find itself in over its head.
Picking the Raptors in this series would amount to something like blind faith. It’s an accomplishment, though, for this team to advance this far after its earlier dances with elimination. One could have argued at various points that Toronto hadn’t played well enough to merit advancing. The Raptors fought through, sustained injuries (most notably to Jonas Valanciunas in their second-round series against the Heat), and advanced anyway. This team has been equal parts nervous and nervy—the kind that seemed to do everything in its power to lose Game 7 in the first round to the inconsistent Pacers only to later win a decisive fourth-quarter in Game 7 against a more formidable opponent in the Heat. They enter the conference finals playing their best, most confident basketball of the postseason. It won’t be enough.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
The Case For: The Cavaliers
Cleveland doesn’t only enter this series with home-court advantage and the more convincing record of play—it’s also the more rested of the two teams by far. Playing the shortest possible series in the opening rounds while the Raptors took both series to their limit (with multiple overtimes along the way) leaves the Cavs’ best players fresh by comparison. LeBron James, for example, has played 243 fewer minutes in these playoffs than Kyle Lowry. Kyrie Irving has played 231 fewer than DeMar DeRozan. Cleveland’s focus has been especially keen in these playoffs, and a bit of a break in between rounds on top of their lighter game load thus far should exaggerate their advantage in mental and physical acuity.
Regardless, the Raps might not have it in them to keep pace with what the Cavs have become. The team that had previously short-circuited its own ball movement has given way to a smooth, extra-passing machine. The come-and-go defensive discipline of the regular season has tightened to the point of strangling lesser competition. Toronto—though a fine team—is certainly that. Their disadvantage begins with James, a big wing of the exact physical profile that tends to give Toronto trouble. Of consequence: LeBron is pretty much the best possible version of that player. His post-ups are fearsome and his pick-and-rolls worse.
The best option the Raptors have in defending James is DeMarre Carroll, who has long been more of a theoretical answer than an actual one. There is no real record of Carroll’s successful defense of James beyond his general effectiveness on that end of the court and vaguely comparable physique. Helpful as those attributes may be, LeBron is playing commanding basketball in the playoffs and picking his spots expertly. He’ll speed past Carroll periodically, overpower him in the post when necessary, and dabble with his three-point shot as the situation allows. Even if Carroll, who is dealing with some nagging injuries, were to defend LeBron as well as possible, he’d still cede points on the grounds of playing against a smart, hyper-skilled player who is both bigger and quicker. Being outmatched is quite the bother.
Implicit in the matchup with James is the fact that any Cavs opponent has to be equipped and prepared to defend against a variety of pick-and-roll scenarios. Cleveland has found a sharp balance in its shot creation between James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. All three play operative rolls in pick-and-roll variations: a 1–3 pick-and-roll between James and Irving that forces a wing defender out of his comfort zone; a pick-and-pop with Kevin Love that tests the mobility of an opposing power forward; a 3–4 pick-and roll between James and Love that can induce switches; and the small-ball pick-and-rolls that either utilize James as the league’s most terrifying roll man or Love as a three-point threat against opposing center. Throw in Channing Frye as either the screener or a floor spacer and each of these scenarios become that much more complicated. Much will be asked of Toronto’s bigs (Bismack Biyombo and Patrick Patterson, for starters) in defending these sequences—too much, in fact, considering the stars they’ll be asked to cover.
Toronto can guard relatively well when it has its priorities straight, but tends to trip up when stretched out to the three-point line in several directions. That might be a problem against a Cleveland team that ranks among the most prolific three-point shooting outfits in playoff history. Defending the Heat is forgiving to opponents in exactly the way that defending the Cavs is not. Threes are a natural, encouraged, essential byproduct of the way Cleveland operate. Looks are there off the dribble for Irving and Matthew Dellavedova when the defense plays conservatively. Spot-ups for Love, Frye, Irving, and J.R. Smith are keyed by a team-wide interest in ball movement. If the Raptors track those shooters in the same way they did those on the Pacers, this series could get out of hand quickly.
Even if the Cavs’ defense loses some of its edge, they shouldn’t have that much of a problem containing the fairly predictable attack the Raptors employ. Lowry could get the best of Irving and DeRozan might put up points based on volume. Still Cleveland has the structure and personnel to mitigate the damage.
There’s just too much offense in play for the Cavs between James, a white-hot Irving, Love without worry for taller defenders, and the supporting three-point artillery. Even Atlanta’s elite defense allowed Cleveland the highest offensive efficiency of the second round (118.2). What reason would we have to think that Toronto might hold them down to the point of winning four games in this series?
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
The Case For: The Raptors
Toronto is the most erratic of the four surviving teams, which offers the slightest of hopes that it might outperform its precedent over the course of a contained series. Doing so would require the kind of sustained defense, helpful bench scoring, and Lowry-driven operations the Raptors have shown in stretches but rarely together. Align those qualities—along with a solid series from DeRozan, a strong comeback form Jonas Valanciunas, and other factors—and the Raptors might give themselves a shot.
Lowry, in particular, picked a hell of a time to post his best games of the postseason. Toronto’s star guard entered the Eastern conference semfinials shaken to the point of being gun shy; his shot had been so unreliable to the point that Lowry shirked it almost entirely. He finished Games six and seven with 71 total points on 23–of–47 shooting from the field and 8–of–12 shooting from beyond the arc. That’s the version of Lowry that might get Irving into trouble and turn Love’s defense into a liability. Cleveland couldn’t find an effective counter to Lowry’s drives and jumpers in the regular season series, hence why Toronto ended up winning two of three. Lowry’s 43 points in a February win over the Cavs, in particular, should help to outline exactly the angle of attack that the Raptors should be pursuing.
There’s also a game’s worth of good defense on Irving between Lowry, Cory Joseph, and Norm Powell, depending on how Raptors coach Dwane Casey chooses to shape his rotation. Joseph, in particular, could be a problem; Toronto might slow Cleveland in its LeBron-less minutes by having Joseph hound Irving full-court, pushing the ball out of the hands of a dynamic creator and into the less reliable mitts of Dellavedova. Applying the same pressure when LeBron does play could also conceivably tilt the balance of the Cavs’ offense. Irving sometimes responds to these one-on-one challenges by trying to do too much, and James sometimes responds to his overwhelmed teammates by trying to take over himself. The latter can backfire in a big way, though on the right night it might jar the eager passing that has made Cleveland so effective.
Some small comfort might be found in the fact that Toronto’s likely starting lineup (Lowry, DeRozan, Biyombo, Carroll, and Patrick Patterson) was among the most effective Raptor lineups against the Cavs in the regular season … albeit in 11 total minutes. Odds are those short stretches were more noise than anything. If that’s not the case, the ability to counterbalance Cleveland’s starters would go a long way toward mounting an upset. There’s something to the idea, at least, that Biyombo’s matchup with Tristan Thompson would allow him to hover in the paint and lord over the rim while Patterson chases Love on the perimeter. Guards, in particular, tend to be wary of Biyombo’s presence—a tendency that could nudge the Cavs to kick out into jumpshot over-reliance.
From there, the Raptors have a few defenders (Powell, Joseph, Carroll) who could lock and trail a sharpshooter like Smith, one mobile big and a small-ball alternative, and a focused interest in taking away the threes that fuel the Cavalier offense. Walking the line between guarding the interior and honoring the perimeter will be a considerable challenge, but Toronto has had a way of surviving situations throughout these playoffs that should have been fatal.
X-Factor: Patrick Patterson, Raptors
Whether as a power forward lined up opposite Love or a small-ball center when Biyombo goes to the bench, Patterson is a critical piece in Toronto’s rotation. He’ll need to be at his best in extended minutes. Keep an eye on his rebounding (never a strong suit), positional defense, and ability to make good in open space when the ball swings his way.
The Pick: Cavaliers in 4.
Cleveland will become the first team to sweep three straight playoff opponents since the NBA expanded the first round to seven games in 2007–08. Toronto’s season will end up an achievement all the same.